How different does Spring44 vodka taste from its competitors?

"Clear Thinking," this week's cover story on Spring44, details the rise of vodka -- a rise due, in part, to the spirit's lack of flavor: Because it tastes like nothing, it's easy to mix with everything.

How, then, do you evaluate vodka for taste? And furthermore, don't all vodkas taste alike -- like nothing?

There are several prescriptions for tasting vodkas, which range from icing it down to serving it in chilled shotglasses, examining the smell, aftertaste, burn and mouthfeel. Ideally, vodka should be soft, creamy and smooth, and not medicinal or bitter.

Todd Leopold of Leopold Bros. Distillery explains that tasting vodka is about assessing mouthfeel and flaws. And to fully grasp the mouthfeel, he says, you have to taste the spirit at room temperature -- not ice-cold, which is how it's most often served. Room temperature also helps you detect the complexities of the spirit that definitely exist, despite vodka's reputation as a flavorless liquor: Most vodkas exhibit some flavor characteristics, be they faint botanicals, fruit, spice or sweetness.

To detect flaws, Leopold recommends cutting vodka with an equal measure of water, which will highlight anything funky going on in the bottle.

Using that method, I set up my own taste test of Spring44 vodka as well as Belvedere, Grey Goose, Ciroc and Ketel One, four vodkas that Spring44 is trying take on with its vodka made from Rocky Mountain spring water. And while cutting the spirits with water didn't uncover any flaws -- all the vodkas were clean and tight -- the taste test did unearth more differences than I'd expected.

Belvedere and Grey Goose were virtually indistinguishable: Both were nearly one-dimensional, with a creamy mouthfeel and a smooth finish. Each was truly the "white paint" that distiller Rob Masters describes.

Spring44 had a velvety mouthfeel similar to Belvedere and Goose, and it was smoother on the back-palate, leaving hardly any aftertaste. But there was definitely a faint spiciness to the vodka -- likely thanks to the rye in its blend -- as well as a hint of a floral note and mountain botanicals.

Ciroc, which is distilled from grapes, was also smooth and creamy -- maybe the creamiest of all, actually -- and it definitely didn't hurt for flavor characteristics either. I got both fruit and vegetable notes on par with a glass of red wine (though much more subtle, obviously). And I could definitely identify with the taste testers who have compared Ciroc to grappa -- there was a hint of anise that made me think of the Italian spirit, too.

My first impression of Ketel One was almost completely dominated by the finish, which was much harsher than any of the other samples I tried in the lineup (and that aftertaste, however muted, took me right back to college nights spent gagging down shots of vodka from a plastic jug). Once I focused on the initial palate impression, though, I got an almost vanilla-like essence balanced by spice.

Do you have a different impression of these vodkas? Post your opinions in the comments section below.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk